Biopolitics and the Revival of Jose Lezama Lima in the Eighties and the Nineties
Issue 4/5 of the samizdat journal Diaspora(s) features on its cover a detail of “Film de estreno [Film Premiere],” a drawing by Eduardo Zarza Gui- rola, a visual artist who is a contemporary of the members of the Proyecto Diaspora(s) (1998). A mass of screaming skeletons fill the cropped image. They seem about to leap from the page, panicked, clearly fleeing an imminent danger. In her article about Zarza that accompanies the image, Carmen Paula Bermudez notes the omnipresence of death in his work: “Death can be anywhere; Death is life asking to renew itself” (1999, 102). Zarza represents human beings as living in a liminal space between death and life. This space points to the eerie temporality of the so-called Special Period (1989-2005), when the demise of the Soviet bloc dragged Cuba into ideological and economic collapse, leading the island to a political return of the past, which Jose Quiroga calls the Special Period’s “memorialization” (Quiroga 2005, 4). Zarza’s drawing points precisely to this change and alludes to the biopolitical administration of power during that decade. Biopolitics is an ideology that privileges the control of subjectivity and the body, as opposed to a politics where the power to kill the subject regiments the law. It is the control of life and the subjection of individuals by state power and the market. Understood in juridical terms, in a disciplinary (or modern) regime the sovereign had the right to kill or let live. After modernity, however, Western societies became regimented by what Michel Foucault calls biopolitics, a more sophisticated form of power. The ideological subjection of the population that the government required for its legitimization was carried out through the control of the population by biopower (power over life). In most Western democratic regimes there has been a transition from sovereign power to biopolitical power. But in Cuba, sovereign power coexists with a biopolitical regime. In its most basic Foucauldian sense, a biopolitical regime exists where power maintains administrative control over the life of subjects, in contrast to a sovereign regime, in which citizens are subjected through the monarch’s right to kill. In a biopolitical regime, political rule nurtures and protects life. That is, biopolitical control is achieved through a series of technologies of the self (discourses of truth) that create “docile bodies,” and “by which processes of subjectivation [bring] the individual to bind himself to his own identity and consciousness and, at the same time, to an external power” (Agamben 1998, 5). As we will see in this chapter, the representation of the body as an aesthetic and ontological transformation of the New Man reveals the different strategies of state power and domination.
I begin by focusing on the cultural politics that strove to “revive,” the literary importance of Jose Lezama Lima during the nineties, as well as on the effort to stultify Lezama’s impact in the seventies. I advance this argument by analyzing the different power strategies that shaped cultural policies during the two eras. During the first two decades of the Cuban Revolution, government power was legitimized and enforced through a set of policies based on the right of the state to enforce the law through violent measures. This was made possible by the significant political role of the armed forces and the legitimization the revolutionary victory gave them. As is well known, these were the years of the draconian state measures to combat diversionary ideology and eliminate homosexuality. In 1968, for example, Heberto Padilla was targeted for the counterrevolutionary content of his poems collection Fuera del juego. The polemic that sparked off when Jose Antonio Portuondo attacked Padilla in the armed forces journal Verde olivo eventually led to Padilla’s arrest and forced confession of errors. In 1963, the state had also waged a war against homosexuality by using the armed forces to “rehabilitate” gays and other “social deviants” with the Unidades Militares de Ayuda a la Produccion (UMAP) (Dominguez 1978, 392). One more example of these repressive policies was the creation of the “ley contra la vagancia” (law against idleness) in the early seventies, a measure that gave the state leeway for indiscriminate arrest (Perez-Stable 1993, 224).
In contrast, during the nineties, there was more room for disagreement, and it became more efficient to control the life of citizens by regulating it through norms. As a matter of fact, the strategies of state power had already changed with the process of liberalization of the early eighties, as I have already argued. Similarly to what happened in the nineties, at the end of the eighties the government launched the “Proceso de rectificacion de errores y tendencies negativas” (“Rectification Process of Errors and Negative
Tendencies”) on April 19, 1986, to recover socialist values lost with the liberalization reforms. Whereas sovereign power was still present in Cuba, the state developed new strategies of power more akin to those of the Soviet bloc. Although Cuba did not undertake any of Gorbachev’s perestroika or glasnost initiatives, it developed new tactics to control the life of the population and ensure its support of a withering ideology. One of these new power tactics has been to argue that the country is reforming, and thus opening to the world. The control of the population does not change, however, what changes is the form of control. Instead of repressing and prohibiting, the rhetoric becomes “Live and let live.” Moral values are again emphasized in the workplace; homosexuality and queer culture are gradually accepted. Yet the new rhetoric of acceptance of difference is paradoxically a new and more subtle tactic of control that Foucault calls biopower, a new form of subjection to the same regressive ideology. The government’s claims notwithstanding, in other words, there is not really an ideological change but instead simply a new form of exerting control.
Cultural initiatives such as the revival of Lezama, for example, were biopolitical forms of power devised to maintain an ideological control. Among the upsurge of scholarly work about Lezama written during the eighties and nineties, I specifically focus on the reading of the sexualized body in Lezama’s work. This official criticism of Lezama’s work is key to understanding how his discourse became a dispositif of power intended to desexualize the body that vicariously represented the New Man. On the one hand, official criticism reinterpreted sexual jouissance as the culmination of the Catholic Lezamian imago. On the other hand, the intellectual group Proyecto Diaspora(s) destroyed the Catholic and baroque body to show the biopolitical transformation of citizens into docile bodies. In Diaspora(s)’s samizdat Diaspora(s) as in its members’ poetry, these bodies are given an ambiguous political reading. The subjectivity of the characters these texts portray could be symbolizing a freedom of sorts. But these characters could also be representing citizens who have lost their subjectivity and the control over their lives. In order to fully understand this ambiguity, I reflect on emancipation through Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notions of “the schizo” and “becoming-animal,” parts of a theoretical framework that has deeply influenced Diaspora(s)’s work. In my counterreading of these figures, I argue that some of these characters have in fact uncannily turned into Giorgio Agamben’s “homo sacer,” the docile body with no control over its own life.
The study of state power and its manifestations (sovereign or biopolitical) is crucial to understanding the poetics of Diaspora(s), because the group’s understanding of subjectivity is a critique of biopower. As we saw with Zarza’s “Film Premiere,” the politics administering power over life dehumanize those subjected to them, and this is precisely what Diaspora(s) show in their work. This is why, before delving into Lezama, this chapter looks at the theoretical implications of biopower in the context of the “Special Period.” To illustrate the deployment of biopower I look at Boleto alparaiso (Ticket to Paradise), a film depicting the segregation of HIV-positive patients in Cuba, and I analyze the Elian Gonzalez affair. It is the dialectics between life and death that I seek to analyze in this chapter. First, I show how sovereign power (the right to kill with impunity) and biopower (the control over life and subjectivity) coexist. Second, I demonstrate how institutionalized culture deploys these two forms of power in silencing Jose Lezama Lima’s work and sexuality (the right to kill), and how it revives them (control over subjectivity and body). Finally, I analyze Diaspora(s)’s focus on these two types of power through their relationship to Lezama’s baroque language, and through their own poetry.